Rome, Italy; the food, the culture, the sunshine, the romance.....oh let's take the kids! I love Rome. My first trip was for a wedding anniversary way back days before kids, which is a long time ago as eldest is now almost 19 years old. I went back again with work, attended a conference which was so boring I bunked off at lunchtime and went exploring with some of my colleagues, much more fun than being in a stuffy conference centre. My husband took our eldest 8 years ago as a reward for working hard on the run up to her 11+ exam, so we've been a few times and thought we'd take our two youngest at half term.
What to take
Flat shoes, boots or trainers that are easy to walk a long way in. I lived in my Doc Martens and trainers. Rome is quite small and very easy to get around so you end up walking miles and miles. Take something to cover your shoulders especially if you are planning to visit the Vatican Museum, St Peter's or pretty much any church as you will have to have your shoulders covered to enter and no short shorts either. Knees and shoulders should be covered for entry into most of these buildings. There is no point taking high heels as most of Rome is cobbled and a nightmare to walk in high heels. If you want to take something nice to go out for supper in (I'm talking to the ladies now) take wedges, much easier to negotiate the cobbles in.
If going in the spring or summer take high factor sun cream and a hat - especially for the kids - there is no cover in the Forum, Colosseum or at Ostia Antica. If you're queuing to get into St Peter's or the Vatican Museum this can take a couple of hours too and it's not fun in the hot sun. Also make sure you find a supermarket to stock up on bottles of water, you can buy from local touts but it's a lot more expensive. Take snacks with you too, you'll do a lot of walking and even more queuing.
Getting to Rome
Cheapest flight possible that isn't going to arrive at silly o'clock. Arriving at silly o'clock means hassle getting from the airport into the city; hassle getting access to hotel rooms and very grumpy children. Ours are 13 and 15 years old. We flew Monarch from Luton into Fiumicino. There are various ways of getting from the airport to the city. There is a train that goes straight to Termini (main train and bus station) in the city, or you can get a taxi, we'd just missed the train and there was a 30 minute wait so we got a minibus which was a little more expensive but costs less than taxi. Great sightseeing tour on the way to Termini that you don't get with the train.
Once at Termini you can either get a cab or send the kids off to figure out which bus or tram to get to wherever your hotel/apartment is - this was great fun and they became brilliant at working out bus routes over the next few days. There is also an APP, Rome Metro Free Map and route Planner you can download that links into all the transport options in Rome including walking routes to destinations. Enter where you are and your destination and it gives you the bus and tram numbers, bus stops or walking options - brilliant.
Where to stay in Rome? Hotel or Apartment
Our initial thought was a hotel. However, in the past we'd ended up in some really grotty hotels in good locations or really grotty hotels in awful locations. We had a limited budget so didn't want a beautiful 5* affair and a trendy boutique hotel would be wasted on the kids. Also, we aren't intending being in it that much, basically to sleep and shower. We were not fussed about breakfast as there are so many awesome places to eat in Rome. Why waste valuable foodie opportunities on eating in a grotty hotel? The hotels around Termini are cheap but also grotty and it's pretty much the classic red light district, not an area I want my teenagers to experience just yet, if ever. We also didn't want to end up with two bedrooms but on different floors or ends of the hotel and having to split up with one parent and one child in each. We also wanted to be in the Centro Storico so we could be close to all the sights
I checked Booking.com and an option came up that I hadn't considered - an apartment. Interesting - similar pricing to a grotty 2* hotel but with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, etc, so we know the teenagers are in the same place as us and not on a totally different floor. We also have some veg out space if needed - not intending using the kitchen as I'm on holiday. However this would be a great option with small children as you can prepare fresh food for them and have somewhere to change nappies and play rather than on a tiny hotel room floor.
We chose Navona Apartments, the Minerva two bedroom apartment, Via Della Minerva 5 close to the Pantheon (this just happens to be our favourite place in Rome and is central). The price for 3 nights was £550 inc VAT. Check in between 15:00-20:00, check out 08:00-10:00 but we could leave our luggage in the hall so long as the cleaners could clean round it. Sounded good, so we booked.
We didn't realise that 'close to the Pantheon' meant actually next to it, right slap bang next to it, open the windows and you look directly at it kind of 'close' to it. I was expecting it to be vaguely near the Pantheon so you could see it if you hung out of a window with someone holding your ankles. Nope, right bang next to it.
Two bedrooms (both double) and a sofa that converted into a bed. The teenagers balked at sharing a bed so 15 year old daughter nabbed the bedroom and 13 year old son had the sofa bed. The location was impeccable, just round the corner from the apartment is THE best coffee in Rome, Tassa D'Oro. Across the other side of the square is a supermarket, quite small but each morning has fresh pastries that are wonderful and an amazing choice of cured meats. We left the teenagers in bed, ventured out for coffee, bought pastries and freshly squeezed orange juice to bring back and sauntered around The Pantheon when it had just opened and was totally empty - every morning - just the best experience.
Other big plusses to staying in an apartment:
1. Somewhere to veg out after a hard day of sightseeing. We tended to go back to the apartment around 4pm for a couple of hours relaxing, snoozing, whatever to recharge before getting showered, dressed up and going out for drinks and supper. It was lovely having a living room rather than crowding into a small hotel bedroom.
2. We were entertained with beautiful music coming from the buskers outside The Panteon. We had classical violinists, opera singers, jazz saxophonists and classical guitarists. We opened the French windows of our bedroom which overlooked the Pantheon and this amazing music entered the apartment giving us a wonderful treat and a lovely background to relax to.
3. Artisan gelato shop just below us - yes there were crowds but this was understandable as the ice cream was amazing. We just sent the teenagers down to get our orders, then sat with the windows open, eating ice cream and listening to the music.
4. Entertainment from our windows - buskers, magicians, you name it, we had lots of entertainment without having to go outside, just watched from the windows while the teenagers had a snooze.
5. Incredibly central location - there is a hotel just as close but it costs a lot more than the apartment did.
6. Freedom to have snacks, make a cuppa, have a glass of wine and nibbles when we fancied without having to lay out a small fortune in the hotel bar. Just nip over to the supermarket across the square and stock up for the few days that we are there.
Pluses for staying in a hotel.....hmmmm, that's a difficult one, can't think of any.
Tripadvisor - be careful about reading reviews on Tripadvisor unless they are made by your friends and you know their taste in hotels, food etc. We read a review on the apartment (after we'd returned) by an American couple who complained that it was noisy (the music) and they had crowds outside the door because of the ice cream shop (that's because it was one of the best in Rome and you just had to say 'excuse me please' and people moved), they also said there was nowhere to get breakfast locally (complete rubbish, best coffee shop in Rome is literally round the corner).
What to do in Rome?
There are the classics - one day at The Forum/Colosseum; one day at the Vatican museum, Sistine Chapel and Castel Sant'Angelo and St Peters; one day wandering round the squares and fountains - great ice cream next to the Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps on top of that there are the 'must-do's' such as the Mouth of Truth, the Baths of Caracella, The Pantheon (our favourite). We didn't find out until too late about the Segway Tours, these looked like a lot of fun, so book one if you have a sense of humour and want to Rome in a slightly quirky manner.
There is a lot to see and do in Rome so how do you pack it all in, my advice for 3 days stay....
Absolute MUST do, throw a coin into the fountain as this means you'll return to Rome. Excellent ice cream on the corner. A beautiful fountain, beware pick pockets
Vatican Museum and St Peters
If you're desperate to go or deeply religious then if you must, do it. If you're not then avoid it like the plague. St Peter's is wonderful and we went on a Wednesday, not realising that Wednesday is when the Pope does his thing and comes out and talks to the mere mortals who come to see him. The square was packed, the queues to get into St Peter's afterwards were horrible, we'd had enough by that point so didn't bother. It was quite an experience to catch a glimpse of the Pope though, but if you don't want to spend all day queuing don't go on a Wednesday.
In an ideal world I would pay extra to go straight to the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel and miss out the rest of the Vatican Museum. We prebooked a timed 'tour' which meant we jumped the 2 hour queue to get in but that was it, the extra money just got us to jump the queue, there was no tour guide. Once inside everyone walks so slowly. It's full of American and Japanese tourists walking so slowly it's untrue so no matter how much you want to get through it you can't, you are trapped, there is no way out, no shortcuts, you have to go with the flow. All of us had had enough by the time we got to the Sistine Chapel and we really wished we hadn't wasted a day there, awesome as the Sistine Chapel is the kids didn't appreciate it and were utterly fed up. Hence no one wanted to queue again to get into St Peters.
I've visited St Peter's before and it's beautiful, given the choice I'd do St Peter's on any day but a Wednesday. Get there early and climb to the top for an awesome view of the rooftops of Rome, give the Vatican Museum a miss.
Food around the Vatican and St Peters - don't eat inside the museum, it's a tourist rip off. Wander down the side streets between the Museum and St Peter's and there are a number of fab little cafes and amazing tiny pizzerias selling delicious slices of pizza to take away. Grab a slice and a drink and go and sit in St Peter's Piazza and eat lunch.
The Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese
A beautiful stairway of 135 steps. On the right hand side (going up) of The Spanish Steps is the house where the poet John Keats lived and died. The steps usually have lots of flowers at the edges giving a beautiful array of colour. The film Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck made the steps famous, especially for the American audience. Villa Borghese is close to the Spanish Steps and houses a wonderful art collection, it's set in beautiful grounds that are ideal for lazy picnic on a sunny day. Unfortunately we've never made it there so can't tell you more.
It's pretty, it's a long walk from the old stuff (if that's why you're going to Rome) and we didn't make it to either with the children this time. Depends what you like, we went for the old stuff.
The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verita)
Just over the river from Trastevere but a fair way from the Centro Storico or anything else really, is the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. At the entrance is an old manhole cover or ancient fountain portraying the face of a man, thought to be an ancient god. Tradition has it that if you put your hand in it's mouth and tell a lie your hand will be bitten off - go on try it, I dare you - I wasn't that brave. Enter the church and it's beautiful. We were fortunate once to visit during a service and the entire church was lit with hundreds of candles. There is a crypt which is worth a visit too.
We took a tram, unfortunately there was a rather fat man blocking the aisle so we missed our stop as he wouldn't move out of the way to let us past and was too fat for us to squeeze past- yes, I do know some Italian swear words - we weren't pleased and ended up quite a way away waiting for a return tram. Put it down to another adventure.
We prebooked a timed ticket for this but didn't really need it as there was no queue. Afterwards we were told the best time to go is 4pm (it closes at 5pm) as the place is completely empty the the tour busses have left. The Forum occupies a huge site and it's really worth going but beware hoards of US and Japanese tour groups who push their way through and barge you out of the way. A better option for ancient Roman culture and ruins is Ostia Antica by Fiumicino airport, more of this later.
You can't miss The Colosseum, it's huge, but the queues for the toilets are just awful so go before you go inside or have a 30 minute queue. The audio tour is well worth doing, even 13 year old son who hates 'tours' actually found it interesting. It could do with someone like Stephen Fry re recording it as it was rather boring and would be much more fun if it was read by someone with a little more animation in their voice. Just standing and taking in the atmosphere of this place is a great way to spend time.
Food around The Forum and Colosseum - at the far side of the Colosseum, the opposite direction to The Forum there are a number of grotty looking hotels overlooking the Colosseum itself but down these side streets there are some lovely local Italian cafes. We ate in one called La Pace del Cervello which was on Via del SS Quarto. The food was lovely, we sat outside and could see The Colosseum at the end of the street, there was a fab gelato shop on the same street too which we had for pudding on the way back for the tram.
Ostia Antica and Fiumicino
Ostia is the old harbour of ancient Rome, it became silted up so was abandoned. If you think The Forum is big, think again. Ostia Antica could fit The Forum in 10 times over and it's virtually empty too. If you're flying out of Fiumicino airport you can get a local taxi to Ostia for around €10 or take a local train and the ruins are a 5 minute walk from Ostia station, it's well signposted. There isn't much there apart from the ruins so take food and water with you and a sunhat, it's a great place to have a picnic.
Our 13 year old son wanted to have a day at the beach away from 'walking round old stuff'! We did an awful lot of walking. We took the train to the airport, left the suitcases at left luggage and took a local taxi to Fiumicino itself. We'd been to Fiumicino many years ago when we had a little time to kill before our flight and had eaten the most amazing seafood in a little cafe at tables outside in the most delightful garden.
What's the best way to find decent food in a non-tourist town? Ask the taxi driver. He qualified out whether we wanted 'tourist/expensive' food - we said absolutely not, we wanted to go somewhere the locals would eat great seafood. We got it. A tiny cafe, that looked nothing from outside, a couple of plastic tables and chairs, not glam at all. The food was amazing. We found the restaurant we'd been to many years before, overgrown, closed and run down. Fiumicino seems to have a lot of summer trade but not a lot going on at the end of May.
After a fantastic lunch and the most amazing grilled squid we went off in search of the beach. As we came closer to the sea the wind became stronger and stronger, we found a breakwater but never found the beach. Taking shelter in a cafe (with delicious ice cream) it turned out that there is a beach but all the beach is behind 'clubs' and camp sites so you have to pay to access the club or camp site to get access to the beach. After an 'epic fail' we had a couple of hours to kill before check in so persuaded our son that 'going to look at more old stuff' may be a better way to kill time than hanging around the airport. Taxi to Ostia with 2 hours to look round.
What can I say, it was awesome. Teenage boy reckoned it was better than The Forum and asked why we'd bothered going there when we could have spent a WHOLE DAY here. In the 2 hours we probably only saw around 10% of the site. It's huge and only saw a couple of other people. No queues, no American and Japanese tourists walking painfully slowly, just heaps of 'old stuff'.
There is an entire section of beautiful mosaics - I had to text the others to come and see them as they had gone a different way and the site is so vast that shouting isn't going to work.
If you're going to Rome, go to Ostia, it's worth it.
Just look Up!
When walking around Rome, look up, I'm being serious here. We wander around looking at eye level or looking down at guide books and maps and miss out an entire world of wonder. Stop for a minute, no matter where you are and look up, you never know what you'll see. These are a few photos from moments of 'looking up'.
Wander down the side streets
I have a bad habit of wandering into places that you're not meant to go, such as peoples private houses because they've left a gate open. The plus side of this is that we've seen some very interesting places and sights that the general public don't have access to over the years. The downside; my family are nervous about letting me wander off, so far we haven't had any bad experiences so I figure they need to 'man up'. On one of the side streets next to the Pantheon we found the 'Pope dressing up shops', or so I thought. Until we figured that these were the shops that the bishops, priests etc bought their ceremonial garments from, rather than being dressing up shops for people going to fancy dress parties as The Pope - although, I don't see why not?
Eating out in Rome
A great website for restaurant, cafe and bar recommendations is Spotted by Locals, it also gives you details of the metro and tram stops to get there, worth a read.
Eating out in central Rome isn't cheap, there are a lot of restaurants around the Piazza Navona and Campo dei Fiori. Piazza Navona is a must do, even if it's just for a drink before dinner. This is where we discovered sherry on ice many years ago. The restaurants are expensive, the fountains are fabulous and it's a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by. We ate at Tre Scalini because it's famous and has a fabulous location, food was fine, expensive but we had to do it once in Rome. Entertainment for the evening came in the form of a chap walking his piglet, not in a leash, just this piglet following him around the piazza just like a puppy. You don't get that in Covent Garden.
Budget restaurants, pizzerias and cafes
The best and cheapest food we had in Rome was found in Trastevere. Just over the Tiber and about a 15 minute walk from the apartment. One of the best pizzerias (and cheapest) in Rome is the Ai Marmi , don't be put off by it's location - it's on one of the busiest roads in Rome and it's definitely not glam but if you have kids who love pizzas it's worth going. It's nicknamed The Mortuary due to its stark interior and marble tables but it's full of locals, it's heaving and you may have to wait for a table and it's very loud but you'll get a taste of real Rome.
Have a drink opposite one of our favourite churches in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere, then walk to the pizzeria for the best pizzas.
Walking around the streets near Santa Maria in Trastevere there are heaps of restaurants, most considerably cheaper than the ones in Centro Storico and the food was excellent in all the ones we tried. Our favourite (we went back twice it was so good) was Carlo Menta, it's on about 4 floors and there is dining outside, delicious stone baked authentic pizzas for €6, sea bass for €10, the bill for supper for all 5 of us (3 teenagers plus us) and house red wine or a bottle of cava for under €60.
Not so budget but damned good food
For fine dining with the best view of Rome go to Sabatini's in Trastevere, sit on an outside table sipping champagne as the sun goes down and the gold murals on the face of The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere shimmer and glow. If it gets a little chilly you can always move inside or the Maitre D' may donate his jacket to you. I had this privilege some years ago, days before children, when we were there for a wedding anniversary. This year we sat in the bar next door and sipped chilled cava with the kids - as much as I love my children our finances don't stretch to dining at Sabatinis with them.
An old haunt of ours, going back a few years, is Per Luigi. We went 20 odd years ago and it was small and local, with no menu and no English speaking. They told you what was on the menu that day, if you didn't understand you looked around the restaurant and pointed at what someone else was eating and that's how you ordered. I'm a little addicted to squid and had baby squid, grilled with a lovely salad and it was wonderful. Per Luigi's has now expanded and gone a lot more upmarket, we didn't go (obvious reasons - teenagers in tow and price) but it has fabulous reviews.
The one below our apartment was pretty good, plus there was another fabulous one further round the square close to Tassa d'Oro. Ciampini on Piazza San Lorenzo is good as is I Caruso on Via Collina, there are heaps of ice cream places in Rome so it's pretty hard to get a bad one - look for ones with queues as that's usually a good sign. Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona is particularly famous for ice cream as well as a cafe. If you are near the Trevi Fountain there is a fabulous ice cream shop right on the corner - beware of pickpockets though
Pretty much everywhere you go in Rome you will stumble upon an ice cream shop - great isn't it?
Coffee and Cafes
Tassa d'Oro has to be my favourite, they make amazing coffee and they have a vending machine outside for ground coffee and coffee beans when you're desperate and they're closed - perfect - one of the reasons I love Rome.
Tre Scalini see Ice Cream above. It's a little like going back to the 1930s, elegant tea rooms, fabulous ice creams and famous for it's Tartufo - death by chocolate. Great to eat at night, you may get a glimpse of the piglet having a wander around the piazza.
Let's face it, you're in Rome, if you get a bad coffee anywhere the mafia will probably take the barista out and have him or her shot so it's going to be difficult to get a bad coffee.
There are a number of markets in Rome from bric a brac to food. My favourite food market is Campo Dei Fiori which runs most mornings and from lunchtime transforms into restaurants and bars. Fresh porcini mushrooms, fragrant strawberries and courgette flowers. Makes me partially regret not cooking while in Rome.
My favourite bits about Rome - The Pantheon and Trastevere, my son's favourite - the food, especially the pizza at Carlo Menta; my teenage daughter's favourite bit - ice cream and my husband's favourite bit about Rome - listening to the jazz outside the apartment.
I love Rome, I'll be back, I threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain so that's definite.